Inside the minds of your pupils

10th February 2006 at 00:00
A psychologist in Glasgow is helping teachers crack the dynamics of the classroom - with really positive results, writes Elizabeth Buie

Corporal punishment has been banned since the 1980s and paper punishments have lost much of their currency. Rewards for positive behaviour have their limitations, and schools constantly have to find new and better ones. So what kind of strategies are left for teachers trying to control their classrooms?

Alan McLean, author of The Motivated School, believes that creating a climate where youngsters are better at self-motivation may be part of the answer. Mr McLean is a principal educational psychologist in Glasgow, where his work comes under the council's wider social emotional learning framework.

His training programme for teachers, based on his book, is being piloted in 16 primary and secondary schools in four education authorities: East Renfrewshire, Orkney, East Lothian and Glasgow. It is part of the Scottish Executive's Better Behaviour - Better Learning strategy. In simple terms, the programme revolves around creating greater awareness in pupils of their own classroom "stances", or "classrumstances" as he calls them.

Alan McLean identifies seven stances, ranging from "actively focused" to "annoyingpest" to "hiding". He also wants to make teachers more self-aware, more alert not only to what motivates individual pupils but also to the group dynamics within a class, and more aware of their relationship with that class.

Much of what Mr McLean describes as "drivers", "gears", "mindsets", and so on, is simply a lexicon describing situations which most teachers will recognise instinctively. But, by creating a framework, he hopes that he is giving teachers a language that will allow them to look at familiar situations in a different way and articulate their professional intuition.

Perhaps the most important thing to have come out of his research is a new focus on the quiet pupils who cause no real trouble in class but who are not properly engaged. In a class with more difficult pupils who demand a lot of the teacher's attention, the "hiding" pupils, as he calls them, can all too often be overlooked - and their learning needs ignored.

His pilot for the Executive has grown out of the original work he did when writing his book, which was published in 2003. It sits alongside a number of other approaches the Executive is exploring, such as restorative justice and Cool in School, the Fife programme teaching pupils how to handle difficult situations.

Mr McLean spoke to around 1,000 teachers and got them to write down on 20,000 Post-it Notes a rank order of their pupils' engageability. From there, he developed a model of motivation, based on teachers' intuitive perceptions of children as learners. He aims to help teachers create motivating climates in the classroom and "hook" the unmotivated or demotivated.

As part of his research, he has been working with P7 pupils at Alexandra Parade Primary in Glasgow, one of the "pathfinder" schools in the Executive-funded pilot project. This has involved working directly with the youngsters and discussing what stances they adopt in the classroom: what makes them an active participant, what switches them off, what can turn them back on to learning. This enables them to become more aware of each other's attitudes to learning.

Mr McLean says he has been "blown away" by their maturity of thought and grasp of the concepts, including how well the pupils have been able to handle difficult issues in class discussions, such as "Who is a bully?" and "Who is a victim?". The exercise was, he says, very empowering for pupils, mainly because he was asking them about the lifeblood of a classroom.

"It's about the social reality of the classroom - it's like their own Big Brother. The kids are living this every day and that social psychology can't be left to chance."

Carole McKenzie, headteacher of Alexandra Parade Primary, says: "What I have seen through this work with the children is that they are not only more able to talk about their own stances and personality types, but have developed an awareness of what it is like to be another child in the class, plus what it must be like to be the teacher."

While covering the class one day, she told a pupil who was behaving badly that he was exhibiting "pest behaviour". By not calling him "a pest", but describing his behaviour instead, she was able to depersonalise the criticism and he quickly snapped out of it, she says.

Some pupils' responses have been frank and forthright. They want feedback from teachers - but any praise should be honest, not insincere praise for easy work. They don't like teachers who talk too much, and they don't like teachers who shout.

She believes the biggest effect in her school has been to give staff and pupils greater self-awareness: "Unless you know yourself you can't impact on the behaviour of others," she says. "You need to know yourself and what kind of person you are, what makes you tick and what turns you off."

Alan McLean believes that peer relationships - and particularly, peer adversity -can have a strong impact on whether a pupil is engaged in learning or not. "What gets them into a good stance is effective teaching and learning. What gets them into a bad stance is peer adversity - not getting on with pals, falling out with them, being in the right social group.

"I am amazed at the simplicity of this finding. It suggests that a major factor in under-achievement in Glasgow may be peer adversity. The big challenge for teachers is to concentrate on promoting positive relationships."

There are implications from this finding - that the composition of a class can have a big impact on how well pupils learn; and that information on pupils' stances should be passed from primary to secondary schools as part of their transition details, so that secondary teachers, too, can try to create well-balanced classes.

The work also shows the huge impact one or two highly disruptive children can have on the learning of others - and that if the teacher cannot find the right strategies to handle disruptive elements, the whole class can spiral downwards.

Mr McLean suggests that mapping out the stances of pupils could identify where, for instance, there are not enough quietly or energetically engaged pupils leading the rest. If the class is dominated by disengaged pupils who will not allow the others to engage, then there may have to be intervention in the class dynamics.

Miss McKenzie adds: "The thing that comes across is the relationship between the pupil and class teacher. There has got to be that genuine relationship between the adult and child for the child to be confident enough to expose weaknesses in his or her behaviour and work on moving forward. There has to be a no judgment climate."

The Motivated School by Alan McLean pound;19.99, Paul Chapman Publishing

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